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Zodiac Challenge update: an epic fail and a win

At the beginning of this year I proposed myself a challenge: I would finish a 12 painting series that I had long-abandoned – The Celestial Map series, inspired by all 12 signs of the zodiac. Well, my friends, I failed. But I am happy to say: not completely.

Someone once said: it’s not over until you win. You are not defeated unless you quit. And here I am not quitting. Let’s go into my failure in detail and then I’ll explain what I consider a victory in this whole process.

From the start of my challenge, I had three paintings ready, one in progress, three finished but willing to redo, and other five that I had no idea what to do with (how the character would look like, composition or colors). Then I decided on a pretty comfortable schedule of one per month.

Illustrations ready. Aries, Taurus and Cancer that I made long ago, and Pisces, finished early this year.

However, the next one right after that I proposed my challenge was Gemini (a redo). And I am an indecisive person. As a friend wisely said, I seemed to be incorporating Gemini’s personality on this one – and after two months of struggle (and the end of my deadline) I simply decided to skip it and go directly to sketch the next one, Leo (another redo).

Then, something came to my mind clearly for the first time. As an illustrator, I am used to work a lot and sometimes very fast for clients. Which helps a lot in this case is that they are usually art directors with a clear idea of the results desired, and I am too good at interpreting briefings. However, when it comes to art directing myself, I was failing miserably. I needed more defined guidelines, adding some rules besides “inspired by zodiac signs” thing.

Illustration direction

Of course, I had a few things defined such as: fire and air are male signs, water and earth are female signs; all should be humans and have creatures when it makes sense. But what else? And the compositions? Some were standing looking right to the ‘camera’ and others in movement, but what was the visual rule for that?

So I took my inspiration panel and looked for their positions on the zodiac wheel, and started sketching quickly – brainstorming – compositions for each piece, and placing them near each other. Therefore, I could check how they would look like together, considering when they appeared near each other in the zodiac wheel; considering the opposites; checking the groups of elements.

Inspiration image for all zodiacs – “Illustration of the Copernican system”, by Andreas Cellarius, 1661. Click to enlarge.

And by doing this, I finally came up with rough ideas for all remaining pieces! Later, I took a whole week to work on refining all sketches. I was able to define most on the sketches in this same week, and in the next 15 days I worked on the hardest ones for me: Gemini again, Sagitarius and Libra. I think this could have been due to my male reference being too narrow, so I always end up creating a character that looks like my husband (which I used as reference for Aries) or Legolas – so I struggled to come up with different looks as I wanted all of them to be diverse.

For my grateful surprise, by middle of July I made it!!! All sketches were ready. But then, something great happened: a client came up with a lot of work. I had two options: work on the paintings in my spare time to finish them quickly, or pause it again.

Pencil sketches ready, with text and constellations digitally placed

As much as I hated, truly, to stop my schedule, I decided for it. Simply because I didn’t want to rush and end up unhappy with the paintings. Pressuring myself to finish quickly was the exact reason that lead me to hate my previous Leo and Virgo paintings, and consequently abandoning the series for years. I am not really a fan of “better ready than perfect”; if there’s a risk of making something look bad, I prefer to postpone it.

Besides, my client was asking for a lot of illustration work. I don’t know about my illustrator friends, but after 4 hours illustrating I get exhausted. I can take breaks and go up to 6 hours, but more then this is just impossible to keep with the same energy and quality. So I prioritized my client, and kept studying, for when I had the time, I would finally start the final paintings of the new zodiacs.

Color studies

Not long time ago, I was able to take some time and work on some color studies. This helped me to visualize the series as a whole, and I was happy I did not start painting any new one before doing it. It’s a very, very rough draft of them all, but since I am the client this time, I understand what I am planning here. Another important note is that I don’t like to digitally plan it excessively, or else I’ll be painting as a mechanical thing and I’d get bored very easily.

In this image, Aries, Taurus, Cancer and Pisces are ready. I digitally colored all sketches at the same time to control the overall look of the collection. Some things may change while I paint, but the color scheme is defined.

So here you are, all the zodiacs planned (even Gemini, although I have a second option for the composition and might change it in the mean time…). The Virgo is almost done and I have exciting news: I’m recording the whole process and will post it on my YouTube channel!


I am very happy with my progress, despite of not keeping up my planned schedule. I felt like a failure for not being able to stick to it, I felt like failing again in this project that once was so important to me. But now I have everything settled and will paint everything on my own pace, without getting delayed by indecision regarding the composition and such.

By early next year, I will release prints (finally!!) of the first set of 6. Wish me inspiration and look! I am not defeated unless I quit!

Thank you for readying it all!


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